There is a saying that a frog sitting in a pot of water heating very slowly on the stove will not jump out, but get slowly cooked, incrementally. Harper has taken the work of heavily funded political-economic think tanks, to made deep lasting changes to Canadian social-economic-political thought; incrementally he has changed the very nature of the state according to SFU professor Donald Gutstein. He writes that the utopian dream of this neo-liberal ideology, is, “…a state governed by market transactions and not by democratic practices” (p.12). Gutstein has written a well-documented, readable, short book (249 pages); its purpose according to Gutstein is to reveal how Harper has earned his “ism” in that, Harpers “…program will outlast his years as prime minister” (p. 16). The book is an expose of the ideation and strategy, quite disturbing to me, upon which Harperism is built.
The analogy of the frog is mine, but the book describes the low-key, incremental, cumulative impact of Harper’s strategy, revealing also Harper’s unique brand of neo-liberalism. Gutstein documents how Harper’s “unique brand,” and “program” of neo-liberalism is having its effects on various Canadian institutions and life in society, and suggests that what was unthinkable thirty or forty years ago, is now accepted as normal thinking about politics and the market state. He invites us to look at the facts and come to the conclusion with him that Harper has already left his mark on Canada; “Harper has fundamentally modified the relationship between state and society” (p. 16); Harper has earned his ism: “Harperism will remain intact for years to come (pp 14, 249).” This new way of thinking is not how Canadians have traditionally thought about the common good, or what it means to be Canadian, or perhaps how they are people of faith. Only reciprocal, deliberate, creative, focused, international, thoughtful, action may turn things around…incrementally.
Gutstein tracks the genesis of neo-liberalism in Canadian politics and shows that the political ideation is not Harpers’; his uniqueness is only in the doggedly persistent, incremental way in which he went about his business of working from the political philosophy he had bought into - the ideas of Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) and Leo Strauss (1899-1973). Hayek’s influence created a neo-liberal amalgamation of conservatism and liberalism, using new values and strategies to create the market state, opposing the welfare state which Hayek absolutely rejected as socialist. Accordingly, the purpose of government is to benefit the market state, not to benefit the welfare of the people. The ideas of Leo Straus are found in Harper’s militarism and ideas on national strength and greatness. The ideas of both men and the work of their think tanks coalesce in Harper’s ideas, his political decisions and policy making. Neo-liberalism moved away from Keynesian economic management and regulation for economic equity and social justice after WWII; according to the neo-liberal scheme for a strong state, it is necessary for the government to create and enforce markets for their own sake. Strauss’s un-egalitarian ideas support those of Hayek; for Strauss, a strong state needed to demonstrate strength by being in constant opposition to an enemy…be at war.
Gutstein implies that the term “neo-liberal” reveals an innate inconsistency and tension. The term is not used much today by actual neo-liberals, though it was used at the outset, already in 1951 by Milton Freidman, a follower and promoter of Hayek’s ideology. The idea that the role of government was to create and enforce markets, even if it meant imposing upon and violating people’s rights, railed against the traditional notion of the Adam Smith’s classical liberal notion of laissez faire. The term “Libertarian “is often preferred by modern neo-liberals, but it is not honest about their strategy to impose their power for the sake of the market state. Early 20th century use of state intervention (Keynesian) was to restrain the excesses of capitalism for the sake of human social wellbeing. The present Conservatives have jettisoned their “progressive” label, and their neo-liberal ideology holds up economic freedom as the basic freedom, not political freedom or democracy. Most true Conservatives would today would prioritize democracy, and be aghast with Harperism’ s view that economic freedom is the core value for society., and that the moral imperative is not a political one, but a metaphysically economic imperative.
Keynesian regulation was for nation building; Neo-liberal action is anti-regulation, intent to build, not the nation as a people, but as a market state: to build an, “…individualistic non-egalitarian society, governed by market transactions” (p.19). It is the belief that pricing and market forces will regulate itself since the market is wiser than government. In chapter five, regarding environmental issues, Counter the environmental threat to the market, it is shown that Hayek believed that government regulations were absolutely misguided because regulation of resource exploitation would damage the market state’s innate wisdom, “The market knows more that government ever can” (p. 137). Too much participation by, and concern for, the people was/is seen as a threat to economic freedom; planning is considered socialism, an anathema. The neo-liberal goal stated differently is: “… a state governed by market transactions and not by democratic processes” (p.12). From a neo-liberal perspective, economic freedom trumps political freedom. To create a strong market state, Hayek in the early 1950’s, initiated the idea of think tanks for “public education” to intentionally change the public’s mind about the state and economy. Harper of course built upon all this theory and the work of the think tanks in his incremental, introverted, controlling fashion. Harper has been schooled in, believes in, and carries on with this ideation. Today well-funded by corporate money, neo-liberal think tanks dominate Canada’s intellectual scene. Harper is not a “lone wolf” in his brand of politics, Gutstein indicates; the flip side of Harpers’ political actions and ideology is expressed by a network of think tanks such as the Fraser Institute, working over decades, “to win the battle of ideas (Chapter two), to change the climate of ideas about the relationship of the state and the private sector, “…and our understandings of ourselves as self-centred individuals or as compassionate members of society” (11).
Harper, via Leo Strauss`s neo-conservative writing, has also incrementally changed the traditional historical narratives of Canada’s self-image and traditional values, of being a peaceable nation and a just society, to being a great military nation. Traditional family values are retained, but Canada’s history is being revised in public documents, in narratives commemorating confederation for instance, to create a Canada, True North Strong and Free, with military and economic greatness. According to Straus, a strong state must have religion, in the functional, mechanical, Durkheimian sense I suspect, to maintain a conformist flock with traditional, social-conservative values to serve the market state (p.232); the church could function to extend the message of neo-liberalism by being a good source of “professional second hand dealers” of think tank ideas (p.20). As well, to attain and maintain greatness, the nation must be perpetually at war with an enemy, posturing “strength” and “greatness.” Here too Harper’s stance on the War in Afghanistan, and also his Pro-Zionist stance, betrays his strategy of showing Canada as a Militaristic nation with a “muscular” foreign policy. Being unabashedly, rhetorically, aggressive in his partisan bias for Israel, he will be assured of constant enemies. Complimenting this militant posturing is his “tough–on-crime” (war of crime and drugs) but inadequately grounded or researched criminal justice policy. Lost is the traditional neutral status of being a peacemaker and help search for win-win solutions for social justice, peace, and public safety.
Gutstein concludes chapter eight, which documents Harper and his think tanks in the incremental path to “Fashion Canada as a Great nation,” by summarizing thus: Harper modeled much of his great-nation doctrine after the third-age neo-conservatives in the United States. Their goal as inspired by Leo Strauss is to exploit conservative values to transform the United States into a more radical nation, one that is aggressive and hawkish in outlook and populated by compliant patriotic citizens. Harper is doing the same in Canada and in the process is making the country unrecognizable” (p.246). In areas of state power as expressed in military posturing and tough on crime issues, neo-liberals are closely associated with the neo-conservative political brand of politics associated with the ideology of Presidents Regan and Bush. Political action serves on the health of the market, and the misery and actual social-psychological destruction of the social fabric is not in focus or of great concern. New values and virtues have been “marketed” by the think tanks which measure the health, strength, and prosperity of the market sectors of the country. Even education, including private schools, is now seen through the neo-liberal marketing lens as described by Gutstein. Canada is no longer presented as the peacemaking nation concerned with social justice and the common good. One differs at one’s peril.
Throughout the various chapters of his book Gutstein demonstrates and charts the development of neo-liberal thinking and action in various sectors of Canadian society. A large focus is on how neo-liberal thought and action is developing the market state and selling the “doctrine” that economic freedom as the foundation for prosperity and national greatness as measured by its own neo-liberal rating scales. Gutstein reveals the focus on de-regulation, how the Harper government has delimited Statistics Canada for example, which now enables well-funded corporate right wing agencies and their think tanks, which have the money, to create and present their statistical evidence to support and push their point of view. Evidence is neo-liberal’s bette noir, states Gutstein, and deregulation and removing all hindrances and controls on market activity is its primary game. Consistent with this doctrine is the minimizing of climate change, removing regulatory policies and debunking the science of global warming or climate change, and creating its own “science” to allow resource exploitation to proceed unhindered for the sake of the market. Unions (Reject the unions and prosper, chapter three) are a barrier to the market state so they must be limited in their power and influence; the rhetoric focuses on the “right to work.” However, in Chap 7 (Deny income equality) the right to work in actuality becomes the burden of desperate workers trying to make ends meet, because according to the neo-liberal ideology, the market state needs inequality to motivate industry and hard work, revealing a Straussian misanthropic attitude if not an unforgivable ignorance of the internationally growing gap between the haves and the have not’s, human beings. Gutstein cites a 2012 Fraser Institute report that tries to prove that income inequality is actually healthy (p. 205). He laments that income inequality is here to stay “…perhaps because of media reluctance to discuss the issue – except to deny its importance” (196). [It is in the news this third week of January 2015 because of the challenge by Oxfam, insisting that global inequality be on the agenda for the World Economic Forum at Davos].
One does not have to accept Gutstein’s point of view of course, nor his conclusions; but he does presents us with documentation and commentary that should stimulate us to think more deeply about what just seems to be normal accepted political-economic thought today. The challenge will have to be placed on “new” knowledge construction in the light of the decades of public “marketing” of neo-liberal ideology. The influence of incremental intellectual change, in the way we think of state, society, and ourselves, has possibly affected the thought patterns of many Canadians, including those active in faith communities. I see evidence of the results of the “marketed” concepts in the general acceptance of an actuarial growth model for indexing the health of even congregations and the corporate church.
Gutstein’s book resonated with my experience in his critiques of Harperism’ s emphasis on tough-on-crime and deterrence models , in attempting to address public safety. A host of crime bills have been passed without proper research or evidence for his crime policy to be morally or politically justified. I regard the Harper administration’s tough policy a kind of bullying and exploitation of public fears in line with the Straussian concept of needing perpetual war, serving the needs of a muscular Military state. Locking people up in custodial environments and in solitary confinement does not do any good to the incarcerated nor the country. Many prisoners, Gutstein reminds us, have mental illness and conditions such as FASD, and incarceration just exacerbates the health and safety issues. The spokespersons for the Harper government, in the news again today (Jan 20, 2015; the prophetic challenge is done by the John Howard Society) insist that they are doing justice for the victims, without any explanation or evidence how returning evil for evil can bring about something good. According to the Straussian notion of the function of religion, has the Church accommodated too much and become a “second hand dealer” and believer of neo-liberal ideology?
Using criminal justice issues as a “wedge issue” in achieving political ends is simply unethical as much as relying on falsehoods for political advantage is, in my opinion. Crime cannot simply be dealt with properly or moral-philosophically from an abstract economic point of view in terms of a profit and loss, costs and benefits model. Harperism has only one lens through which it sees everything, including criminal justice. Gutstein makes note of the failings of economic ,“Beckerian ,“ rational ,economic, calculator model on which Neo-liberal criminal justice based (p. 175). The human misery and need represented in prison, much of it revealing pre-existing deprivation and health issues, are not part of the calculation, only the bottom line is important. Crime is simply addressed as a risk management issue much as one would deal with one’s economic portfolio, rather than a human, relational, community issue regarding shalom and the common good.
Gutstein gives us much food for thought, though his book does not present us with in-depth theological or moral-philosophical reflection. However, the book stimulated my theological curiosity. Throughout, neo-liberal thought and action of Harperism there is an objectification and dehumanization of God’s image bearers all, with a blatantly unjust, biblically seen from my perspective, exemplified in the endorsement of economic inequality. “Inequality is necessary for the sake of the health of the market state!” Really! Jesus did not measure the health of a nation by the number of its millionaires, but by the health of its most vulnerable poor and outcast, as much as the Old Testament had its prophetic eye on the wellbeing of the widow and orphan, the poor, needy, and alien. It is shalom, the human flourishing, the wellbeing of the common good in human terms and human services, that justice is to serve, not the health of abstract, systemic, market forces. Neo-liberal ideology simply has placed its faith and trust in impersonal metaphysical forces. Nor is it rooted in any consideration of Revelation of God, neither about the Good, nor traditional eternal virtues and values for the support of human and natural life. Thankfully there are spokespersons wise and courageous enough to see through the neo-liberal minds and call the government to answer for this injustice. The so called “Ministry of Truth (remember Nineteen Eighty-four?) has not captured every mind.
Another critical issue is the neo-liberal metaphysical belief that economic freedom and property rights, not collective human rights, are foundational for the First Nation’s development. This position has an insidious effect on First Nations as Nations, and on their health and wellbeing in reality. The neo-liberal emphasis is to address aboriginal issues by having the market state solve all their issues. Collective rights are anathema to neo-liberal thought and fee-simple title and private property rights awarded to replace the Indian act. This will in effect desacralize what First Nations have held as sacred traditional values since time memorial, namely their sacred respect for the earth and all its life, including the collective wellbeing of all, in all their relations. De-sacralisation of a neo-liberal kind: reserve lands are simply “dead capital.” Gutstein devotes a whole chapter to this important issue: Chapter Four, Liberate Dead Capital on First Nation Reserves” (pp 107-135). Assimilation of a neo-liberal kind- the incremental enticement and manipulation into the economism of the market system - is an echo of the “Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 in my opinion. Individualist market values do not address First Nations’ issues nation to nation, only indirectly in the economy, individual to individual since equality is only, “… in the market”. Gutstein critiques the neo-liberal approach citing that it will probably exacerbate inequality, poverty, and illness; some real estate is of higher market value due to the proximity to urban areas, while others on less “valuable” land will suffer without support and traditional safety nets. It may make a few millionaires suggests Gutstein, but will not benefit the common good with the erosion of collective rights, solidarity, and safety- nets for the vulnerable. For a detached individual simply to have money in the pocket does not denote equality and justice that address the larger issues in First Nation’s communities that created by a century or more of colonial intrusions. The pressure Harper’s administration is exerting on the First Nations is creating internal discord but also motivating opposing forces such as that of the “Idle No More Movement.” Gutstein is not optimistic, he concludes, “…step by step, increment by increment, the idea that prosperity and economic development depend on individual property rights and not collective action is being imprinted on the minds of policy and media leaders. It will not be easily erased” (p.135).
Gutstein notes that in late 2013 Pope Francis critiqued the neo-liberal doctrine of economic inequality and the poverty being created by this belief. Appealing to eternal truths of Justice and the common good and the importance of social justice, the Pope courageously said that the state must stand up to the rich and “regulate the markets”; he stressed, “Money, must serve, not rule” (p.215). It is not simply market regulation that is the issue, but how, and for whom, state power and regulation is used. Gutstein notes that the evangelical community is in general support of Harper’s pro-Zionist policy. Evangelicals comprise 12% of the Canadian population, and explains Gutstein, their soteriological and eschatological perspectives, “…correlates with the Straussian recipe for a strong state: religion and perpetual war” (241). I suspect that many evangelicals support Harper’s tough-on -crime policy as well. However, with a general implicit bifurcation of the civic versus personal salvation and the belief in separation of Church and state, I suspect its collusion with neo-liberal doctrine is not apparent to, or explicit in, the “mind” of the church in its general thinking; thinking on criminal justice, or its social-economic, political thought. Perhaps folks in religious traditions need do conger up extra moral courage and insight to admit that they too have been influenced by the incrementally increasing temperature of the new climate of thought regarding Harperism’ s market state and economic freedom.
Truth has been a casualty; Harperism creates its own truth. In collaboration with minds that have seen through the reigning truth of Harperism, and with an eye on the Scriptures and the ancient eternal values of the Good, we see another vison for human life, and are called to assert as much energy and influence in the areas of political and moral theology and philosophy as Harperism and the think tanks have already done and are still hard at work doing.
Henk Smidstra, January 20, 2015.